Wednesday, July 12, 2006

An Ocean In Iowa by Peter Hedges and other books

Hello fellow bibliophiles! I haven't written a review for awhile because my husband's Dell went belly up last month when he installed a beta version of Microsofts new operating system, Vista. My ancient strawberry iMac refuses to open 99 percent of the web sites out there, so I've had to await hubby getting his old HP up and running again.
Meanwhile, though, I've been reading a number of fascinating books.
The first is a book by a former neighbor of mine, Peter Hedges. I lived in West Des Moines, Iowa, from 1966 through 1969, on Elm Street and on 23rd street, one door down from the Hedges family. My father was working as a negotiator for the Iowa State Education Association and my mother worked part time as a nurse at Iowa Lutheran Hospital in Des Moines, so we weren't what you'd call wealthy, yet we moved into a neighborhood surrounded by families that had tons of money, and tons of problems. Peter Hedges father Bob was an Episcopal priest, a huge and intimidating figure that I recall even the adults fearing. Peter's mother Carol was a visual artist and a raging alcoholic who had to be rescued from her studio when she was too drunk to drive or was choking on her own vomit. Peter had an older sister, Mary, and two younger brothers, Joel and Philip. I had an older brother, Phil, and a younger brother, Kevin. Peter played with my older brother on occaision, as did Joel, but I think Philip was too young to join them. Across the street were the Boltons, and Liz Bolton's husband was, I recall, in the military (my mother remembers him as a lawyer) and he'd come home and beat the tar out of his son Tommy, with a belt, and his daughter Crissy, who was about 5 years old. The father had an affair with his secretary, and came home one day to tell Liz he wanted a divorce. Liz freaked out and got into astrology and started dressing like a gypsy, and seemed to be unable to care for her children, who had to eat whatever they could find in the frig, which was usually raw hot dogs. They had several collies, and when the collies had puppies, Liz ran over them with the car and killed them, then stuck them in the freezer to "preserve their beauty." Her huge mansion-like house was ankle-deep in dog hair and feces, and her daughter became a regular fixture at our house to "taste test" our food (because she never got a decent meal at home) and to be bathed and put in clean clothing by my mother, who felt sorry for the Bolton kids. Next door to them were Jim and Tom Curry, who also had an older sister. Few people wanted to play with the Curry boys because Jim Curry (I think it was Jim, it might have been Tom) was born without ribs on one side of his body, so when he went without a shirt in the summer, he looked freaky. But my older brother got along well with the Curry brothers and played with them all the time. The Hickey family lived down the street, and had a boy my younger brothers age that he played with, and the Cutler girls lived up the street, both tall, thin blondes who wanted to be models and had eating disorders. Next door to us on the other side was the Bogus (pronouced Baw-gus) family, who hated my dad because Mr Bogus lost the negotiating job at ISEA to him. They had a horrible yippy little dog that I used to fear would get through the fence and bite. The Silversteins also lived up the street, and my mother was called upon to try and save Mrs Silverstein from suicide, as Mrs Silverstein was a bit of a nutcase as well. There was some kid, and I don't recall who, who had a train set in his basement, a weight bench and shag carpeting in this room that had been set up just for him. I cannot remember his name, but I do recall seeing the room and feeling very uncomfortable there. I also attended Clover Hills Elementary School while living in West Des Moines.
Hedges, whose Ocean in Iowa is the story of a kid named "Scotty Ocean" has used a lot of the characters from 23rd street in his book, which is supposed to be fiction, but which reads like something of a twisted autobiography. Scotty is the baby of the family, which Peter wasn't, and Scotty's father is a huge man called "The judge" after his occupation, rather than a priest, but his mother is an alcoholic who abandons her family, and her son, forever causing a wound in her youngest, Scotty. Scotty is a rather freakish child, in that he seems to be preoccupied by nudity, sexuality and crushes on his mother and the neighbors mother, whom he tries to "kiss" on her genitals when at a sleep over. I find it a bit hard to believe that a 7 year old boy thinks that much about sex, and about women his mothers age. Unless Hedges was sexually abused by his mother, I can't imagine he did think that way, especially in the late 60s, when TV was still pretty free of blatant sexual imagery. Scotty is chased down by bullies from Clover Hills Elementary (I attended that school and I do not recall there being gangs of nasty older boys on bikes trying to hurt me, but I wasn't a PK, or "preachers kid", either, and preachers kids were always the ones that got into trouble for being bad, usually for drinking, swearing or hurting other kids, so I imagine Peter was just too mouthy with the in-crowd and got himself in trouble.) and is brought into the world of an older boy whose descrption fits my older brother Phil. This older boy then seeks to molest Scottys sisters, but is only able to abuse the younger one, while filling 7 year old Scotty in on the "bases" of sex. I sincerely hope that this character was not based on my older brother, who is dead of the disease he was diagnosed with in 1969 while we lived on 23rd street: diabetes. Though my brother Phil did a number of horrible things in his life, I'd like to think he didn't start down that dark path until he was 15 and we were living in Saylorville and going to school in Ankeny. At any rate, The character of Scotty just didn't ring very true to me, because, as I've said, I was there, living on 23rd street in 1969, and though I was 8 years old, I didn't see things happening the way this character did, nor was I obsessed with sexuality and my parents or my friends parents. Even after we had a prostitute and her son come to take care of us when my parents went on a trip to Dallas, Texas (they didn't know she was a prostitute, she had come highly recomended as a housekeeper and nanny by a friend of my dads), I had to ask my mother what her son meant when he told me that she "entertained men" in their home at night. Her name was Virginia and I recall that she starved us for a week, refused to let us stay inside the house while it was daylight, and that my older brother drank tons of water and lost 10 pounds that week, due to diabetes, but we didn't know that at the time. Hedges has captured something of the mood of the neighborhood, but again, his main character seems like more of an adult in a childs body than a real child. I am going to send a copy to my mother and see what she thinks of it; I imagine she will have more memories resurface than I did. Hedges is best known for his screenplays for "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "About A Boy." He lives in NYC with a wife and two children, but apparently still hasn't gotten over his childhood and his mother's alcoholism.
I grabbed a copy of "Bookmarked to Die" off the paperback picks rack of the library last week, and was delighted to discover a new series about a sleuthing librarian who lives in Bellevue, Washington. Jo Dereske has created Helma Zukas, a somewhat stiff, dignified woman who is in love with the towns police chief and has a wild and wacky friend named Ruth. Helmas adventures are fun, fascinating and quick to read, so I'm going on the record as recommending them all, though I am not normally a mystery fan.
I also discovered that my friend from North Bend, Syne Mitchell, as come out with a blistering hot new SF novel called "The Last Mortal Man" about nanotechnology and cloning, and the ramifications of immortality being available only to the wealthy. Syne hasn't written a sour note yet, so I am betting this will be another triumph to add to her list of great books.
I also read "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" which is a fictional account based on the life of the author in communist China during the late 60s and early 70s. I was so impressed with the authors love of French literature and how well he wove his tale of suffering and redemption, that I got a copy of his next work, "Mr Muo's Traveling Couch", which I've just started reading. I'm also reading Leah Hager Cohen's "Heart, You Bully, You Punk" but so far, it's too early to tell if it will be as glorious as her non-fiction "Glass, Paper, Beans."
I hope everyone is delving into their summer reading lists with as much gusto as I am!

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